Art After Drama: Krisna Murti
By Jeong-ok Jeon
Art After Drama is a solo exhibition featuring new and recent video works by Krisna Murti. Krisna Murti has been a leading figure in the contemporary arts in Indonesia, particularly in the field of video and multimedia art. During his three decades of practice, Krisna has passionately participated in numerous creative projects not only as an artist, but also as a writer, educator, and more recently as a curator, contributing to the discovery and exposure of young Indonesian media artists.
This exhibition presents the prominent characteristics found in a series of Krisna’s works, produced between 2011 and 2013. It investigates theatricality as a sharing principle in the array of works, which include site-specific video installations, video object, and single channel video. Theatrical elements found in his work include that of performer, audience, and spoken (and visual) language; and more specifically, key components that encompass the diversity of media and form: sound, light effects, and the stage experience. The curatorial process of this exhibition has also paid special attention to a range of essential issues around art and life, such as the origin of art, art of post-historical time, and the relationship between digital media and human perception.
In a conversation with the artist, Krisna once mentioned an interesting trait about how Indonesians communicate. He thought that Indonesians tend to express their feelings and thoughts indirectly, using their facial and bodily gestures rather than directly through words, and that this has become their custom. Thus, without understanding such bodily vernacular, foreigners tend to misunderstand a local’s true intention. Listening to him, I came to think of my own experiences as a foreigner. In my conversations with Indonesians the symbolic gestures of eyes, shoulders, and fingers are often used instead of the explicit language. Their gestures, or what I shall call performative actions, speak their intended messages in an expressive and theatrical manner.
While the method of daily communication in Indonesia emphasizes its people’s sense of performativity, Indonesian rituals involve more dramatic circumstances. For instance, important family or social events such as a wedding ceremony demonstrate the dramatic characteristics of the locals. This dramatization is not just in the details of the opulent traditional decorations of the site of the ritual, or the theatrically ornate dance and musical performances conducted during the event, but rather, very spectacularly visualized by the exaggerated costume and make-up, particularly by women. Many women at these ceremonies present themselves as overly made-up, which renders them almost unrecognizable. They appear as though they are joining a masquerade where their true nature and identity becomes blurred. Like a masquerade, which is a highly theatrical and ritualized staging, the Indonesian wedding ceremony provides the experience and practice of theatrical drama in a real life situation.
Wedding ceremonies are just one example. In Indonesia, there are many other similar ceremonies where roles are played as if in a drama, such as circumcisions, birthday parties, and funerals. In this respect we can say that life events resemble a drama comprising of “theatrical” elements such as actors (those who impersonate), audiences (those who view and respond), and language (what constitutes narrative). In this theatrical life setting, Indonesians play a variety of roles, interact with others and create their own stories, infusing their lives with performativity, interaction, and meaning. These theatrical elements appear both in secular and sacred routines in life, and fuse the element of drama into every part of their lives.
Origin of Art and Origin of Life
Drama as an art that we are familiar with, originated from a religious ritual in honor of deities during ancient times. As Jane Harrison explains in her book Ancient Art and Ritual (2005), art (or drama) and ritual are “…two divergent developments [that] have a common root”, and art that originates from ritual ceremonies goes as far back as primitive life. Primitive men expressed their fear and desire through communication with gods, incorporating a wide range of media such as cave painting, bas-relief, temple decoration, collective body movement, and sound, which constitute the primary forms of what we now call art. When the primitive and shamanic act, which were theatre-like activities, turned into a “drama,” the history of art made its beginning. Therefore, primitive and shamanic rituals are the essential source and impulse of art.
The word ‘drama’ is rooted in the Ancient Greek word dromenon, which means a ‘rite’ or ritual ceremony. A ritual ceremony most widely celebrated in Southern Europe called the Spring Festival welcomed a new season where everything comes to life. The Spring Festival was also dedicated to a Greek god, Dionysus, who was resurrected from his death through the Dionysian Mysteries. Thus Dromenon – the Spring Festival – was held to celebrate the “passing of the old into the new”, which was ritually important in the cult of Dionysus. A similar impulse to call the gods is found in ancient agricultural societies in Indonesia. Indonesians were also very close to theatre from the beginning of their lives and theatre was a way to connect people to their gods. By imitating the acts of animal and natural environments, ancient Indonesians expressed their prosperity and hardships to their gods.
Despite the many different types of people, interests, and concerns, the main goal was “fertility” or the wish for new life, expressed by two essential elements: man and woman. Just as ancient drama is associated with the spiritual concepts of openings and new life, the dramatic elements that appear in Krisna Murti’s art is also closely related to the artistic concept of the origin of life. Dance of the Unknown, (2012) for example, presents a fragmentary collection of bodily gestures by an Indonesian contemporary dancer, Gita Kinanthi. Presenting the performer who is mimicking a birth from a cocoon, this video recalls the collective memory of the birth of the individual audience that has been latent in their subconscious. With a completely dark background, the video begins with Gita in an embryonic posture completely in white with no indication of a spatial background. The flatness or emptiness of the space where she is positioned accentuates the immateriality of her presence.
Looking closely at this piece, the performer Gita begins her moves with the sound of a bamboo flute as though the music awakens her spirit. Throughout the video, the performer’s many alter egos appear in different postures, scales, and directions, confusing the audience between identifying what is real and unreal. During her performance she seems to mimic the image of a bird and nature, which gives the impression that she is performing a shamanic rite. While the artist mentions in his statement that the fragmentary collection of the performer’s gestures implies “the process of life from birth, growth, and dynamics,” this video however consists of random structure and non-linear dance movements. This video, dominated by its visual language, can be considered a type of image theatre that emphasizes visual rhythm rather than narrative.
If Dance of the Unknown emphasizes the immateriality of space where birth is represented by symbolic gestures, Eggology, (2013) (a video installation in collaboration with Polish dancer Ewelina Smereczynska), explores bodily movements in a physical space where birth is fulfilled. In this video the performer’s abstract movements are projected onto an egg shaped structure hanging in the gallery, giving a sense of suspension in a non-gravitational space. The eggshell implies a woman’s womb as a source of energy. Due to the blend of materiality of eggshell and virtuality of movement, this installation gives audiences the fantasy of being in a mother’s womb at a highly dramatic moment. At the same time the performer’s body appears as shamanic language as if she is in communion with god. To cite Lea Vergine in her essay The Body as Language (2003), by using her body movement as a language, the dancer in the video seems to lose her identity and to refuse a sense of reality, and yet is able to invade and control the sphere of motions. This video installation blurs the boundary between installation and stage art.
Post-Historical Art: Non-Linearity and Non-Narrative
The exhibition Art after Drama, has two implicated meanings. On one hand, Krisna Murti’s art follows a certain drama by examining, referencing, and recalling the origin of art, which includes ritualistic, primitive, and mythical components. The movements of performers represented in Krisna’s video installation have a primordial significance in origin and meaning. The ritual importance derived from ancient rites that emphasize the notion of “opening” and the resurrection from death, further connect to primitive and shamanic rituals as an essential source and impulse of art.
Yet Krisna’s video work goes beyond art as drama and past the evolution of what is generally included in art history. His videos do not follow the linearity and narrative of drama in a classical sense (beginning, middle, and end). Rather, his work presents a fragmentary collection of bodily gestures by performers that drift, defying the laws of time and space. Thus, it is an art that comes after or out of the grand narrative and as such becomes, borrowing Arthur Danto’s phrase, post-historical art.
When Danto wrote his book After the End of Art (1997), he did not mean that there will be no art or that artists will cease to exist. Rather, what had come to an end, according to him, was the narrative that has structured the past six centuries of art history. As the narrative comes to an end, “whatever art there was to be would be made without benefit of a reassuring sort of narrative in which it was seen as the appropriate next stage in the story”. In other words, art does not have to belong to a here or there. Thinking about the nature of our life cycle would help to understand his point. We usually divide life into simple phases: childhood, adolescence, and middle age, and believe that each phase follows one another. This thinking is possible because we see time objectively and chronologically. Such objective and chronologically based concepts of time support our belief that each moment moves forward, fundamentally continuous through causal relationships. However, this sort of concept of time excludes contingencies and irregularities, but centers on linearity and stability of a narrative structure.
Krisna Murti’s art lies in the place where we find life full of unclear instances and a myriad of contingencies. Just as we are unable to accurately recognize all objects in this world, his art is ‘hybrid rather than pure,’ ‘compromising rather than clean,’ ‘ambiguous rather than articulate’. In other words, Krisna Murti’s art is positioned in a post-historical era, which is when “anything could be a work of art,” and therefore, “a period of quite perfect freedom”.
Digital Media and a New Way of Perceiving
Krisna Murti uses various media such as video, sound, text, and animation. His use of digital manipulation has a significant impact on the content of his work and the formation of audience perception. For Krisna, his media is not merely the means of communicating with people in the traditional sense or a documentation of the performance, but plays a significant role in relationship between his art and the audience who perceives it. Therefore he makes it possible for the audience to have their different perceptual experiences. By means of computer manipulation, the images of his work become disassembled, rearranged and re-synthesized, which leads to hybridity, displacement, and disconnection. As Walter Benjamin observed, this new way of configuring an image, which changes the way people perceive the world, is possible in the absence of “aura”. In eliminating any traditional and ritual value attached to the myth of originality and authenticity, Krisna Murti’s work asks viewers to replace these meanings with new perceptions, thereby requiring them to perceive differently.
Another video work, Branded Fruits Archipelago (2012) is a good example of showing the possibility of new media in the absence of “aura”. It is a single channel video showing a Balinese woman making an offering for a ritual ceremony. At the first glance, the offering in the video looks like an ordinary Balinese offering. However, when you pay close attention, you can see something unusual: all the fruit in the offering are imported and labeled with a price tag. This video work references the book The Malay Archipelago written by 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace who traveled to unknown continents for his extensive fieldwork. What caught the artist’s attention most from this book was the book cover’s illustration, which portrays not only local fruit found by Wallace, but also fruits foreign to Indonesians, such as pineapple. The artist’s critique is that as much as the imported fruits are dominating supermarkets in Indonesia, the same imports affect traditional rituals. At this level, we experience the hybridity of spirituality, in which the ritual offering remains as a mere “act”.
Tale of Sangupati (2012) is a video installation featuring an Indonesian actor, Landung Simatupang, who tells a story of a young Indonesian man called Joyo, who is a descendent of several generations of dalang (puppeteers) in Yogyakarta. The story focuses on a modern-day tragedy in which Joyo is forced to sell his inherited collection of puppets characters to tourists in a souvenir shop. Due to the development of technology and the spread of urbanization, traditional art forms such as wayang puppetry are now impoverished. The tension between old and new, tradition and modernization, is articulated by the narrator who also appears as an actor in this video. Thus, this video can be seen as a virtual monodrama and perhaps a kind of self-criticism of its own form.
Landung appears fully formed on the gallery wall as soon as the unidentifiable rising smoke opens the video. His face is hyper-real so that the naked flesh feels untrue to audience and provokes a Brechtian alienation effect in which they distance themselves. His calm yet sharply broken voice envelopes the audience. The words he utters seem to be material rather than spiritual. His storytelling invokes the puppet characters on the screen that hover around his face. As Joyo’s hopes are shattered, the images of puppets are broken to pieces. This video is the representation of both memory and symbol.
The hybridity of virtual and real realities shown in Krisna’s video requires a new way of perceiving. Unlike the 20th century when a visual sense was most desirable, in this new century, multiple senses are necessary in appreciating art. McLuhan calls this kind of multiple perception “tactility”. Tactility is not merely contact between skin and objects, but an interaction between the senses. It is also what Krisna Murti expects from his audience through their recognition of objects. By means of tactility the various senses interact with each other and the whole image is understood by an audience who feels and recognizes the work of art.
The last work A Cup of Tea (2011) is a video object consisting of a small coffee table, found objects from the sea and a video poem attached to it. The poem is written by Hanna Fransisca, a young Chinese Indonesian poet who uses metaphor to express the sorrow of separation and the hope for reunion. As an experiment of visual poetry, this work highlights tactility by provoking multiple senses through sound of waves, taste of tea, visual text, and the feel of sand and coral reef. A Cup of Tea can be seen as having a conversation with Tale of Sangupati, the art standing for a metaphorical stage replete with props where the actor Landung, could have possibly been sitting in during his monodrama.
Across different genres of theatre, dance, literature, installation, and sound, Art After Drama requires not only a new way of perceiving, but also different approaches in appreciation; both intellectual and philosophical. Like a play without a plot, the art of Krisna Murti shows complexity, absurdity, and hybridity, which makes the exhibition space fragmented and deconstructed. Collaborating with various artists of different genres and incorporating diverse forms of art, Krisna’s work in its essence makes it possible for art to go infinitely beyond categorization. His art is not based upon the materiality of new technology, but is steeped in the understanding of new culture. Never disregarding the fundamental question of the nature of art, Krisna Murti invites his audience into his own unique reconstruction of art drama.